(Columnist’s Note: Today’s column is a reprint. In sorting through my back catalog for publication today, I find it slightly depressing that this political column remains as timely today as it was two years ago when I first published it. Enjoy. I will be back very soon.)
Thank you, Governor Bevin. My freshman composition class is working this month on a unit about the purposes of education. They’re addressing questions like why we value public education, how we should fund it, whether it is primarily cultural or vocational, and the long-debated question of the “educated electorate.”
If I had written your office a letter and asked for a public performance to make this debate come alive for my students, you could not have better fulfilled my request.
Even better, we get to discuss your take on the value of the liberal arts in—wait for it—a Liberal Arts Class! It’s really just too delicious.
At the same time, my students are watching a video of a TED Talk by Mike Rowe. Mike Rowe, if you don’t know, is the long-time host of “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel and the founder of an initiative called mikeroweWORKS, which promotes greater investment in vocational training, trade labor, and infrastructure.
I adore Mike Rowe, and I encourage you to listen to his TED Talk “Learning from Dirty Jobs,” which you can find just by Googling it. I warn you, the talk is not for the weak of stomach since it includes a rather graphic, if hilarious, description of castrating lambs.
Rowe is a champion of tradesmen, which is a worthy cause, as you know if you have ever tried to find a plumber or an electrician on short notice. The trades are becoming more and more highly paid as fewer and fewer talented people go into them, and I have recommended to more than one student over the years—young people who admitted they preferred working with their hands and were struggling with college coursework or tuition—that they consider a trade school. Rowe is absolutely right that we denigrate blue-color workers to our own detriment.
And you, Governor, are absolutely right that we could use more physicists and chemists and aeronautics engineers in the Commonwealth. I know because I, with my majors in the liberal arts and the social sciences, have worked for both a civil engineering firm and an educational grant focused on improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in underserved Appalachian school systems.
In both cases, part of what I did there was communicate. It turns out that there is no end, in any field, to the need for skills like writing, speaking, and, most importantly, making meaning from facts and figures. But, of course, they were always looking for good mathematicians and engineers, too.
You can be the best engineer in the world, but if you can’t sell venture capitalists on your invention, can’t weave your concept into a narrative of importance, I can almost guarantee it will be lost to history.
You, of all people, Governor, with your own degree in East Asian Studies, must surely understand the value of communication. At the very least, one must occasionally be able to talk oneself into a job.
The liberal arts and the social sciences are all about making meaning. For years now, the signature line on my professional email has included a quote from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (who is American literature, not French, so presumably we will continue to get funding to teach her, but I digress): “Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour / Rains from the sky a meteoric shower / Of facts…they lie unquestioned, uncombined / Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill / Is daily spun; but there exists no loom / To weave it into fabric”
One of the things that I love about Mike Rowe’s TED Talk is that it is a brilliant, skillful, engaging defense of hard work by a man whose own work has put him in a favorable position to make that argument where it matters. Not just anyone can get stage time with Mitt Romney to talk about job creation in America. Not just anyone gets called to testify before a Senate Committee on the issue of skilled trades.
But it’s not Mike Rowe’s hard work that has put him in that position. It’s his soft skills. The through line of Rowe’s erudite defense of hard work and apprenticeship and skilled trades is the concept of peripeteia, which, if you didn’t know, is one of the lesser-known concepts from Aristotle’s “Poetics.” In his talk, Rowe references his Classics professor. I have an M.A. in English, and even I never had a Classics professor. Rowe is a professional opera singer and an honorary lifetime member of the Barbershop Harmony Society. It’s not quite Interpretive Dance, but it’s not industrial engineering or auto-mechanics either.
It is Rowe’s liberal arts degree that both allows him to mount such a strong defense of blue-collar workers and has put him in the position to do so.
So, yes, Governor, there is a role for the liberal arts and the social sciences in this Commonwealth. It is from them that we learn to recognize mistakes when we make them, to see the bigger picture in our lives and our choices, to communicate with grace and aplomb, and to call out and resist rhetorical fallacies. It is from them that we learn to speak truth to power. We need more of them, in fact.
Because most importantly, we need people in Kentucky who will get out and vote and who will do so because they have faith in the future of our communities, our Commonwealth and our country, not because they have faith in the words of a politician or a preacher or a pundit.
Yes, Governor, there is an educated electorate. There are those of us out here who possess the loom that Millay writes of and who are working hard to pass it on to others. Like you, Governor, I am a liberal arts major. I am gainfully employed. And I vote.
I always love to hear from readers. You can write to me care of the Times-Tribune or reach out on our website or social media. Or follow me on Twitter @ChristeeBentley or on Instagram at christee.bentley.